Saturday, July 22, 2023

A Perfect Midsummer Evening at SPAC

Anthony Huxley in Scherzo Fantastique. Photo: Paul Kolnik

At a perilous geoclimatic moment in the Anthropocene, the weather in Saratoga Springs on the evening of July 19 was positively a gift. Perhaps not an azure sky, but clear enough of the Canadian forest fire smog that’s been plaguing the Northeast. A temperature in the upper 70s, nearly 50 degrees less than the extremes of the southwest, and 20 less than the Florida ocean’s bathtub level heat. No floods like in nearby Vermont. Perfect for New York City Ballet’s program of 21st-century choreography and the enthusiastic house at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC).

Scherzo Fantastique (2016) by Justin Peck, commissioned on occasion of the company’s 50th anniversary at SPAC, bears motifs of his now familiar style—the cast clustering centerstage conspiratorially before bursting apart and expressing individuality, playful duets and solos (notably for the pellucid Anthony Huxley) done with exuberance and camaraderie to the Stravinsky score. The bold designs spell high spirits: a painted backdrop by Jules de Balincourt of a foliage allée in hot saturated hues (evoking some of Munch’s fervid works), and the equally zazzy costumes of horizontal color bands with fringe, or studded with flowers, by Reid + Harriet. Seven years on, and many Peck ballets later, this dance fits in alongside a number of similarly solid ballets distinguished by unique production elements.

Chun Wai Chan (front) with cast in Play Time. Photo: Erin Baiano

Gianna Reisen’s Play Time premiered at 2022’s fashion gala, and aptly, the lavish costumes by Alejandro Gómez Palomo take center stage alongside the music, by Solange. The dancers wore sparkly, tailored pieces of individual styles and hues—boxy suit jackets, form-fitting bodysuits, funky wide-hipped numbers, flouncy skirts. Unfortunately, they outshone the choreography, paced by a stop and start rhythm. New principal Chun Wai Chan stood out with his charisma and bold attack; he was also the only dancer to receive the once-standard applause for principals' entrances.

It was paired with Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy (2003), one of his most memorable duets set originally on Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, and here danced by Sara Adams and Jovani Furlan. (Whelan seemed to inspire Wheeldon to make his greatest works; his duet After the Rain, amongs his most sublime dances, featured the same pair in its original cast.) Liturgy is packed with sculptural shapes, daring yet elegant experiments between two bodies, and a consistently elegiac atmosphere.

Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Quinn Starner in Love Letter (on shuffle). Photo: Erin Baiano

Kyle Abraham has created some of the most exciting dances lately on NYCB, including Love Letter (on shuffle) (2022), performed at SPAC. While obviously a skilled artist and choreographer, he didn’t emerge from a strict ballet background, as many have. It’s his unexpected mix of styles that create a kind of personal iconography, or kinesiography, that draws you in. The sudden buckle of the knee that flips a walk from formal to louche. A casual fist bump between two men, a reminder of the affection and teamwork involved. An awkward collapse of the spine to humanize and break the sheer beauty of ballet’s vocabulary. Many of the phrases feel like personal stories that Abraham is sharing through his dancers, and we are lucky to receive them.

He also riffs on ballet’s history, such as in the trio that clearly echoes the famous Pas de Quatre from Swan Lake. The dance, with striking costumes by Giles Deacon set to songs by James Blake, also premiered as part of the 2022 Fall Fashion Gala. These events provide an opportunity to commission less-known, younger choreographers (like Reisen), giving them a boost of exposure. Results are mixed; perhaps it’s natural for the artistry and outlandishness of fashiony costumes to demand all the attention. But with Abraham, the dance, driven by the well-chosen music, comes first and speaks most clearly, particularly on an evening with lovely weather that, sadly, felt nostalgic.

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